York BID Executive Director Andrew Lowson looks at how the city is faring with more businesses open
On the first day that hospitality businesses were allowed to reopen, I came into town with my family to experience what it was like.
The atmosphere in the city centre was just as you’d want it: bustling but not overcrowded, people of all ages enjoying themselves. It was almost as if we were all rediscovering the city we know so well.
We enjoyed a great meal in an independent restaurant. The owners had clearly thought carefully how to use their space so we felt comfortable but not isolated. With hand santiser on each table, we chose our dishes from the disposable paper menus, and our meals were placed on a serving table next to ours, accentuating the feeling that we had our own ‘safe space’. Oh and yes, there were toilets open and clean!
As a family we were hoping for a sense of normality – and that is what we got. We followed our meal with some retail therapy and then a visit to York’s Chocolate Story, an attraction I’m ashamed to say I have never visited before. Staff wore masks and gloves (probably not unusual for chocolatiers!) but I was struck by the way they put visitors at ease, explaining very naturally how to follow one way systems and distance around the attraction. Good training with the right attitude – oh and yes, there were toilets open and clean!
In general, the reopening of hospitality in York went the opposite to some fears; the city was busy during the day, with no visible binge drinking in the evening. People were having a drink in some favourite pubs and bars, queuing patiently for a haircut, everyone being careful to keep their distance. All the hard work and investment undertaken by so many York businesses to prepare for this day was starting to pay off.
It was noticeable that perhaps 40-50% of hospitality businesses felt that the first day was too soon to open up. Each one has its own challenges and must make decisions based on the safety of staff, customers and financial planning.
Issues need addressing
There are still issues that need addressing. Some confusion continues about the best way to access the city centre. The free parking offer is available in certain car parks but not others, and only available via an app not at the pay stations. This is confusing and a very difficult offer to market to consumers. We also need more consistent comms that Park&Ride is available and safe to use – it is not that long ago that government advised to only travel on public transport when necessary, so we need to help retrain public confidence. These two transport options account for 73% of journeys into York, so there is no room for confusion.
So how did the hospitality businesses themselves fare in the opening days? At the York BID AGM last week, our guest speaker Kate Nicholls, Chief Executive for UKHospitality, said the city was performing better than most.
Hotel occupancy was down – but York was “bucking that trend”. Leisure hotel visits were substantially above the UK average, and the city centre bars and restaurants saw above-average occupancy and revenue compared to other cities (albeit nowhere near ‘normal’).
Also on our panel was Martin Bradnam, the general manager of DoubleTree by Hilton and chairman of the Hospitality Association York. He said some hotels in York were forecasting 20-40% occupancy in July. In August forecasts range from 30% to 60% occupancy.
Juliana Delaney, CEO of the Continuum Group, talked about the challenges of reopening York’s Chocolate Story as a visitor destination (prompting my visit!). It did attract bookings from day one, and everyone who visited reported feeling safe and comfortable. Naturally, the opening days have proved slow, and it will be a long process to build up those numbers.
What emerged from that meeting – and from feedback from dozens of BID area businesses – was that York has made a positive start. Now we need to build on that. Operating margins in hospitality are tight, so we need trade to continue on an upward trajectory.
York urgently needs a short-term tourism plan, aimed at the domestic market. The longer we go without one, the greater the chance we will lose out to competitor destinations. We hope the planning now underway can come off the drawing board and into reality as quickly as possible. In the meantime York needs to continue to bring its A-game if we are to make the best recovery possible.